Being a Good Mother: Morality, Age and Class


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This paper is based on qualitative interviews with younger and older mothers and examines how they construct and present themselves as good mothers in relation to dominant discourses of good motherhood. Here I will focus on presenting my analysis of how mothers’ moral maternal selves are articulated across interconnected sites of difference such as class, gender, age at first birth and employment. My investigation of the moral work undertaken by mothers looks at their comparisons with other mothers, their experiences of ‘shared’ parenting and of combining mothering with paid work.

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Being a Good Mother: Morality, Age and Class

  1. 1. Maternal Moralities: Differentiations of Class, Gender and Paid Work Maud Perrier Centre for the Study of Women and Gender University of Warwick
  2. 2. Context <ul><li>Small qualitative study of younger (>18) and older (<38) mothers in the UK </li></ul><ul><li>The currency of morality in previous studies of motherhood </li></ul><ul><li>Good parenting increasingly being understood as the defining sign of one’s morality </li></ul><ul><li>Two conceptual tools: Intensive Mothering (Hays, 1996) and the moral script of putting children’s needs first (Ribbens McCarthy et al, 2000) </li></ul>
  3. 3. Displaying moral superiority: Classed comparisons with other mothers <ul><li>Ascertaining a higher moral status through classed comparisons </li></ul><ul><li>These were not open criticisms: too risky as it places own parenting up for scrutiny and because parenting is considered ‘private’ </li></ul><ul><li>Careful comparisons as a tool in the construction of mothers’ moralities </li></ul>
  4. 4. Displaying moral superiority: Classed comparisons with other mothers <ul><li>My husband and I we both put them first, I looked out the window this morning I looked at our neighbours garden and they have 2 young kids and there’s nothing in there, and I looked at our garden it was neat ‘cos we pay for a gardener to keep it nice and it was full of toys and I just thought in comparison, we really make them a priority, for the garden we’ll pay extra and we’ll put out lots of toys and clearly the family next door have probably got different priorities but it really brought it home to me that we do put them first a lot of the time. (Ruth) </li></ul>
  5. 5. Displaying moral superiority: Classed comparisons with other mothers <ul><li>I think being child focused is quite important because if they’re happy you’re happy, again I know quite a few parents, children are almost like incidental to their lives, accessories they tag along, they’re not actually focused on the children very much which I think it’s quite sad, which isn’t to say the children aren’t happy ‘cos actually they are, ‘cos they don’t know anything else (Helen) </li></ul>
  6. 6. Displaying moral superiority: Classed comparisons with other mothers <ul><li>ok well that’s by comparison to other parents I know, who for example one of them said I liked my children when they were old enough to put them in front of the television, so I could do things, but for example when I do the washing Michael helps me with the washing he puts it in, it takes five hours to do, I could do it in a minute if I did it on my own, he wouldn’t have that involvement then (Helen) </li></ul>
  7. 7. Displaying moral superiority: Classed comparisons with other mothers <ul><li>First thing right from the word go I went back to school with John, there was other mothers there the same age as me some of them weren’t very nice, even the teachers compared us, and you know they would say well actually more the nursery nurses, they’re obviously interested in the welfare of the children and they would say to the ones ‘how can you do this?’ ‘This is not good you cannot bring a baby out in December in just a babygrow!’ I mean on my school report, my final report they’ve got a whole thing about how I looked after John and that he was always really well turned out and his clothes were nice and ironed and he went with his own lunch that was healthy, I had a really nice comment and I think that spurred me on to think I can never be like that, the way that they were. (Kayleigh) </li></ul>
  8. 8. Displaying moral superiority: Classed comparisons with other mothers <ul><li>We’d have half an hour for lunch where we’d get the baby back they would complain that they’d have to have the baby back and that the baby hadn’t been given its lunch already so that they couldn’t just sit and eat their own food, but priority is, I would have gladly fed John and not had any lunch and quite often I did or eaten at the same time, but they just wanted to chill out and not do anything, and to me it wasn’t very good. (Kayleigh) </li></ul>
  9. 9. Displaying moral superiority: Classed comparisons with other mothers <ul><li>I mean I’ve sat in my friend’s house and watched smoke around her baby, let her dog poo all over her carpet, not clean it up, and sleep with different men all the time, nearly every night, and her baby is upstairs sometimes even in the room when they’re taking drugs, now that’s a bad mum! And you cannot make any excuses for that kind of thing. (Nicola) </li></ul>
  10. 10. Displaying moral superiority: Classed comparisons with other mothers <ul><li>Comparison also performed different functions </li></ul><ul><li>Different moral requirements of good mothering for working-class and middle-class mothers: </li></ul><ul><li>For both mothers putting their children’s needs first was a moral imperative, but an intensive child-focused approach was also important for middle-class mothers’ moralities. </li></ul>
  11. 11. Displaying moral superiority: Classed comparisons with other mothers <ul><li>Both groups of mothers construct themselves as better mothers in relation to a classed and morally deficient ‘other’ </li></ul><ul><li>Different respective ‘others’: whereas older mothers were distancing themselves from mothers who weren’t child focused, younger mothers were disassociating themselves from unrespectable dangerous mothers. </li></ul>
  12. 12. Gendered Parenting and Morality: mothers talking about fathers <ul><li>Mothers’ views about good fathering showed that moral scripts about good parenting are deeply gendered </li></ul><ul><li>Constructions of good fathers were still predominantly centred on the breadwinner role, although there was evidence that some had expectations of a new more involved father and a more shared model of parenting </li></ul><ul><li>How does being child-focused feature in mothers’ descriptions of fathers’ parenting? </li></ul>
  13. 13. Gendered Parenting and Morality: mothers talking about fathers <ul><li>I’ll be more likely to sit and play with him and on a train track or whatever whereas my husband if he’s got Simon they’ll go outside together, they go to a bike shop or sort of do what Mark wants to do as well, or if he’s at home with Simon, Simon will be up in the lounge, in the grown up lounge with football on the telly, so it’s a bit less focused around Simon than I would be, I’d be more likely to be in the playroom (Christine) </li></ul>
  14. 14. Gendered Parenting and Morality: mothers talking about fathers <ul><li>one of the things that annoys me about my husband, I say it’s time for Rosie’s bath he’ll say I’ve just eaten I need five minutes and you think it’s getting late though why can’t you have five minutes while you put her in the bath and sit next to her? Quite often he will put himself before the needs of the children and that annoys me and if you were to carry on like that there’s no structure because everyday your need is different, cos sometimes you’ve gotta sit and have a cigarette and then you’ve gotta have rest and then you’ve gotta do this… (Ruth) </li></ul>
  15. 15. Gendered Parenting and Morality: mothers talking about fathers <ul><li>From mothers’ perspective being child-focused approach has not spread to expectations of good fatherhood. </li></ul><ul><li>Whilst mothers criticized their partners’ parenting or saw it as different to theirs, the moral status of fathers was not put at risk </li></ul><ul><li>Mothers’ increasingly seen as responsible for making sure their children receive good fathering (May, 2003) </li></ul>
  16. 16. Paid Work and Maternal Moralities <ul><li>How the ‘working mother’ and the ‘stay at home’ identity positions are taken up by mothers to show they were good mothers </li></ul><ul><li>These differences have been discussed as constituting ‘mommy wars’ between mothers who work outside the home and those who don’t </li></ul><ul><li>Interestingly, both working and non-working mothers were using ‘children’s needs’ in order to justify their choice to work or not to work as right </li></ul>
  17. 17. Paid Work and Maternal Moralities <ul><li>… your children need you more than you think they need you, and more than you know and that’s become apparent. That’s the reason why we talked about me not working because they’re not little forever, there’ll be a day when they’re both at school and I won’t be needed in the same way, you always need your mum even as an adult (Helen) </li></ul>
  18. 18. Paid Work and Maternal Moralities <ul><li>Whereas if I’m around him all the time then I’m not happy ‘cos then if I’m feeling down then that’s gonna reflect on Kieran so if I really want the best for my child then that is the best way to go about it , Is to cater my needs and cater his needs at the same time, I found that’s a good way for me to do it which is get back into my career which I think is a great idea, I think it’s a way forward for me (Anna) </li></ul>
  19. 19. Paid Work and Maternal Moralities <ul><li>The ‘children’s needs come first’ imperative and mothers’ own ethic of care, may be able to co-exist side-by-side </li></ul><ul><li>For some mothers putting the child first does not entail the negation of all their needs </li></ul><ul><li>The fact that mothers making very different work choices draw on the child’s needs moral imperative to construct themselves as good mothers highlights its widespread and adaptable nature </li></ul>
  20. 20. Intensive mothering as a new moral script <ul><li>In middle-class mothers’ maternal moralities, intensive mothering is a required add-on to the script of putting children’s needs first </li></ul><ul><li>This affords middle-class mothers more scope to present themselves as good mothers and thus accrue a superior morality </li></ul><ul><li>For some mothers intensive mothering is increasingly becoming a non-negotiable requirement of moral motherhood </li></ul><ul><li>Crucial to develop a critique of contemporary parenting culture which highlights the significance of gendered and classed inequalities in the moral politics of parenting </li></ul>